Should Merseyside's local contest for fourth place be decided by a single point in Liverpool's favour at the end of the season, then the other lot might want a word with Jussi Jaaskelainen. The Bolton goalkeeper threw in Liverpool's first goal with the determination and creativity of a man with his mortgage on Rafael Benitez's team qualifying for the Champions League.
There is, of course, no suggestion that the Finn is anything but an honest man although his own goal after 12 minutes takes some explaining. Once Bolton's goalkeeper had flapped Steven Gerrard's wayward shot into his own net, the home team went on to contribute one of the most listless performances in memory and Liverpool ran away with a victory in the manner of a team who close out Premier League wins like this week after week.
Presumably the nature of this victory was exactly what Gerrard had in mind when he complained, last week, about a Liverpool team that confined themselves to improbable cup runs instead of winning league titles. Then the Liverpool captain had lamented the "embarrassment" of looking at the League table in recent months although it is perhaps not so bad for him this morning.
This win lifted Liverpool above Everton into fourth place on goal difference alone before their local rivals defeated Portsmouth, also 3-1. It was Benitez's side's third consecutive victory since the FA Cup débâcle against Barnsley and it means that if they beat West Ham at Anfield on Wednesday in their game in hand over Everton they will be level on points.
If not spectacular, then this was the kind of clinical dispatching of lesser opponents that has proved so elusive to Liverpool.
Jaaskelainen's moment of shame came when Gerrard hit a shot that was more of an afterthought, a grasscutter that he hit because of a lack of better options. It was certainly missing Jaaskelainen's right-hand post but the Bolton goalkeeper dived to his right and slightly underneath the flight of the bouncing ball; he then managed to flip it back over himself and inside his near post. An unfortunate move given he is currently in negotiations for a new contract. Gary Megson, the Bolton manager, made a half-hearted attempt to blame the erratic flight of the new Nike footballs but even he did not seem convinced. "Apparently the ball moved [in flight] and these new balls are prone to do that," he said. "The lad's a great goalkeeper and made two fantastic saves after that. He's held his hands up and admitted he made a mistake."
If only Jaaskelainen had held his hands up a little more convincingly to Gerrard's shot. It was certainly not a performance to strike fear into Sporting Lisbon, Thursday's visitors to Bolton in the last 16 of the Uefa Cup. El Hadji Diouf hit the bar in the first four minutes with a long free-kick that was allowed to bounce before it hit Pepe Reina's goal yet Bolton were not as effective as they needed to be from set-pieces.
Kevin Davies and Gary Cahill both went close in the first half from set-pieces and when Kevin Nolan was withdrawn at half-time with a back problem it really looked like an impossible task for Megson's side. Ivan Campo was at the heart of their best moments but he was eclipsed by Javier Mascherano, who was Liverpool's outstanding performer and pulled the strings in midfield.
It was Benitez's first victory at the Reebok Stadium and certainly this Bolton team, only out of the relegation places by virtue of goal difference, do not have the resolve of previous years. Fernando Torres will have spent much of the game wondering how his old amigos at Atletico Madrid could have been dumped out of the Uefa Cup by a team that offered so little. The first away win in all competitions in 2008 for Benitez and it seems like he has settled upon a team that he believes suits his purposes even if it fails to inspire. Ryan Babel, who scored his side's second goal, had one of his better games on the left wing but Dirk Kuyt is still hopelessly unsuited to the role asked of him on the right wing.
Torres waited all game for the through-ball that would allow him to run off the shoulder of the last defender but it never came.
Babel's goal came on the hour when Jamie Carragher, playing at right-back for the second time this season, crossed for Kuyt who volleyed against the post. The ball came back out via Cahill to Babel who tucked it away inside Jaaskelainen's right post. There was a third goal from full-back Fabio Aurelio when he chested down Sami Hyypia's flick from Xabi Alonso's corner and struck a fabulous shot past Jaaskelainen.
Bolton are deep in the relegation struggle on 25 points in 17th place. Perhaps it was for that reason Davies looked near to breaking point although that would be a generous explanation for his stamp on Mascherano's leg near the end. Apart from that, Mascherano's most difficult moment was when his foot was caught in a stray plastic bag swirling around the pitch – yet another reason, you might argue, to ban the things. The substitute Tamir Cohen headed in Matt Taylor's corner on 79 minutes for Bolton's goal.
Liverpool last won at the Reebok in 2002 and it would have been more emphatic had Babel not missed the ball when it was crossed to him by Mascherano in the closing stages. It could be the start of something new for Liverpool, although only Wednesday will tell.
Goals: Jaaskelainen og (12) 0-1; Babel (60) 0-2; Aurelio (75) 0-3; Cohen (79) 1-3.
Bolton (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson (Rasiak, 41), Cahill, A O'Brien, Gardner; Campo; Diouf, Nolan (Cohen, h-t), J O'Brien, Taylor; Davies. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Meite, Stelios.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher; Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio; Alonso, Mascherano; Kuyt (Arbeloa, 86), Gerrard, Babel; Torres (Riise, 77). Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Benayoun, Crouch.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Bolton Rasiak, Davies; Liverpool Hyypia.
Man of the match: Mascherano
Attendance: 24,004.Reuse content